Jane Morris (nee Burden) came from humble family origins in Oxfordshire. She was admired by and then married to the artist, designer and writer William Morris. He shared both his wife and their famous arts-and-crafts house Kelmscott Manor with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In myth, Proserpine comes to earth in summer, but must return to Pluto the God of the Underworld for the winter months, because she has eaten six seeds of the pomegranate fruit.
Once again, Rossetti is entranced by his muse’s neck.
Alexa (born Alice) Wilding is less well-known these days than Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s other ‘stunning’ muses, perhaps because of a lesser romantic entanglement. However, in fact she was painted more often than the others. ‘Veronica Veronese’ is believed to represent ‘the artistic soul in the act of creation’.
The artfully posed, languorous and serpentine neck was obviously becoming a source of attraction to wealthy purchasers, whether connoting sickness or not. Modern ‘re-creations’ of these pictures often miss this essential point.
Fanny Cornforth was born Sarah Cox, the daughter of a blacksmith, and had been in domestic service. The story is that she met the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Surrey Gardens, Walworth, where he tweaked loose her abundant golden hair. Soon she became his model and second muse, offering more vitality and sensuality than the fading Lizzie.
Nevertheless, the neck continued to be a central focus and attraction.
Elizabeth Siddal was the muse/model/mistress and later, wife, of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). He, and others of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (she also starred as Millais’ Ophelia), were besotted with her long red hair, pale skin, slimness, languorous appearance and it seems her neck, which is somewhat swollen and frequently the central point.
She may have had tuberculosis, and died quite young, perhaps of a laudanum overdose. It has also been suggested that, coming from a poor background, she might have had a smooth neck goitre related to iodine deficiency.
Rossetti added to the morbidly gothic image by getting friends to retrieve his poems (suitably disinfected by a doctor) from her grave seven years after the burial in Highgate Cemetery. It was rumoured that she was little decomposed and that her red-gold hair filled the coffin. And yes, it is very likely Bram Stoker knew of this, as his good friend Hall Caine had been Rossetti’s secretary.
Picture from Wellcome Collection
In the Carpathian Mountain area of Transylvania Jonathan Harker noted:
Here and there we passed Cszeks and Slovaks, all in picturesque attire, but I noticed that goitre was painfully prevalent.
This perception of enlargement of the thyroid seems knowledgeable to us, but was a tourist cliché at the time. However, we are led to consider the area of the neck.
In Seymour Taylor’s ‘Index of Medicine’ (1894), ‘goitre’ defined as ‘enlargement of the thyroid gland’ is noted as ‘prevalent endemically…where the potable water is derived from the limestone foundation’, instancing the Swiss mountains and Derbyshire in England where the condition was known as ‘Derbyshire neck’. Iodine was agreed to be a possible remedy, but the cause was usually thought to be intermarriage of close relations and impurity in the drinking water.
In ‘Dracula’ Dr Van Helsing attempts to provide his companions with a number of preventives against the vampires, especially garlic, sacred wafers, and crosses.
Instead, if you are planning to travel to Romania or the Deep South of the USA and eat a very limited diet of mamaliga or cornmeal, I recommend for its Vitamin B: MARMITE!
In the early 20th century an outbreak of pellagra was noted by Dr Searcy, the medical superintendent of the Mount Vernon Hospital for the coloured insane in Alabama. He thought the disease was caused by toxic maize, but was not contagious – the nurses did not suffer. Pellagra began to be recognised as widespread amongst poor black women in the Southern USA eating mainly a diet of cornmeal.
For years afterwards any relationship with dietary deficiency was opposed – preferred explanations were genetic susceptibility, infection and poor sewerage.